In Halsbury’s, 4th Edition, “Principles of Criminal Liability” Crime has been described thus: –

“There is no satisfactory definition of crime which will embrace the many acts and omissions which are criminal, and which will at the same time exclude all those acts and omissions which are not. Ordinarily a crime is a wrong which affects the security or well-being of the public generally so that the public has an interest in its suppression. A crime is frequently a moral wrong in that it amounts to conduct which is inimical to the general moral sense of the community.

It is, however, possible to instance many crimes which exhibit neither of the foregoing characteristics. An act may be made criminal by Parliament simply because it is criminal process, rather than civil, which offers the more effective means of controlling the conduct in question.”

In Kenny’s Outlines of Criminal law, 19 th Edition, 1966 by J.W. Cecil Turner, it has been stated that: –

“There is indeed no fundamental or inherent difference between a crime and a tort. Any conduct which harms an individual to some extent harms society, since society is made up of individuals; and therefore although it is true to say of crime that is an offence against society, this does not distinguish crime from tort. The difference is one of degree only, and the early history of the common law shows how words which now suggest a real distinction began rather as symbols of emotion than as terms of scientific classification.”

And, again: –

“So long as crimes continue (as would seem inevitable) to be created by government policy the nature of crime will elude true definition. Nevertheless, it is a broadly accurate description to say that nearly every instance of crime presents all of the three following characteristics:

(1) that it is a harm, brought about by human conduct, which the sovereign power in the State desires to prevent;

(2) that among the measures of prevention selected is the threat of punishment;

(3) that legal proceedings of a special kind are employed to decide whether the person accused did in fact cause the harm, and is, according to law, to be held legally punishable for doing so.”

Stephen[1] defines a Crime thus: –

“a crime is an unlawful act or default which is an offence against the public, rendering the person guilty of such act or default liable to legal punishment. The process by which such person is punished for the unlawful act or default is carried on in the name of the Crown; although any private person, in the absence of statutory provision to the contrary, may commence a criminal prosecution. Criminal proceedings were formerly called pleas of the crown, because the King, in whom centres the majesty of the whole community, is supposed by the law to be the person injured by every infraction of the public rights belonging to that community. Wherefore he is, in all cases, the proper prosecutor for every public offence”

Blackstone[2], while discussing the general nature of crime, has defined crime thus: –

“A crime, or misdemeanour, is an act committed or omitted, in violation of a public law, either forbidding or commanding it. This general definition comprehends both crimes and misdemeanours; which, properly speaking, are mere synonyms terms: though, in common usage, the word ‘crimes’ is made to denote such offences as are of a deeper and more atrocious dye; while smaller faults, and omissions of less consequence, are comprised under the gentler name of ‘misdemeanours’ only.”

The distinction of public wrongs from private, of crimes and misdemeanours from civil injuries, seems principally to consist in this: that private wrongs or civil injuries are an infringement or privation of the civil rights which belongs to individuals, considered merely as individuals; public wrongs or crimes and misdemeanours are a breach and violation of the public rights and duties due to the whole community in its social aggregate capacity. In all cases the crime includes injury; every public offence is also a private wrong, and somewhat more. It affects the individual, and it likewise affects the community.

The constituents of crime in general has been enumerated in Halsbury’s Laws of England as “a person is not to be convicted of a crime unless he has, by voluntary conduct, brought about those elements which by common law or statute constitute that crime. In general, a person does not incur criminal liability unless he intended to bring about, or recklessly brought about, those elements which constitute the crime. The foregoing concepts are traditionally expressed in maxim “actus non facit reum nisi mens sit rea”. Enforcement of a right and seeking remedy are two distinct facets. It should not be confused.

The concept of crime is essentially concerned with social order. It is well known that man’s interests are best protected as a member of the community. Everyone owes certain duties to his fellow-men and at the same time has certain rights and privileges which he expects others to ensure for him. This sense of mutual respect and trust for the rights of others regulates the conduct of the members of society inter-se. Although most people believe in the principle of ‘live and let live’, yet there are a few who, for some reason or the other, deviate from this normal behavioural pattern and associate themselves with anti-social elements. This obviously imposes an obligation on the State to maintain normalcy in the society.

This arduous task of protecting the law abiding citizens and punishing the law breakers vests with the State which performs it through the instrumentality of law. It is for this reason that Salmond has defined law as a ‘rule of action’ regulating the conduct of individuals in society. The conducts which are prohibited by the law in force at a given time and place are known as wrongful acts or crimes, whereas those which are permissible under the law are treated as lawful. The wrongdoer committing crime is punished for his guilt under the law of crime.

Antony Duff has lucidly observed that “we should interpret a ‘public’ wrong, not as a wrong hat injures the public, but as one that properly concerns the public i.e. the polity as a whole”. In this regard, he has drawn our attention to a passage from Duff and Marshall which state that public wrongs are wrongs which village the shared values that normatively define the political community in which fellow citizens are participants. The impact of such wrongs are shared by both the victims and fellow citizens and in this sense, such wrongs, concern the public at large- the polis, the state and fellow citizens.

It is because of the “public” element that it is the State rather than the victim who is principally in-charge of the legal process. It is the police who investigates the case, it is the State that brings the charges and whether charges are brought, how far the case proceeds is up to the prosecution – it is not for the victim to decide the course of the case. On the other hand, in the civil process it is the affected private individual who is primarily in-charge of the legal process and it is for such individual to take the case to its logical conclusion or to drop it if he so chooses – there is no duty on him to bring the case at all.

In this context, reference to certain authorities that deliberated the conception of crime in the societal context would be apt. In State of Maharashtra v. Sujay Mangesh Poyarekar[3], this Court has held that every crime is considered as an offence against the society as a whole and not only against an individual even though it is an individual who is the ultimate sufferer. It is, therefore, the duty of the State to take appropriate steps when an offence has been committed.

Yet again, in Mohd. Shahabuddin v. State of Bihar and others[4], it has been observed that every criminal act is an offence against the society. The crime is a wrong done more to the society than to an individual. It involves a serious invasion of rights and liberties of some other person or persons.

In Vinay Devanna Nayak v. Ryot Sewa Sahakari Bank Ltd.[5], the Court, while deliberating on the issue of compromise in a criminal case, has noted that it is no doubt true that every crime is considered to be an offence against the society as a whole and not only against an individual even though an individual might have suffered thereby. It is, therefore, the duty of the State to take appropriate action against the offender. It is equally the duty of a court of law administrating criminal justice to punish a criminal. The stress is on the duty of the State in taking action against the violator of law.

In R. Sai Bharathi v. J. Jayalalitha and others[6], while opining about crime, it has been observed as under,

 “56. Crime is applied to those acts, which are against social order and are worthy of serious condemnation. Garafalo, an eminent criminologist, defined “crime” in terms of immoral and anti-social acts. He says that: –

“crime is an immoral and harmful act that is regarded as criminal by public opinion because it is an injury to so much of the moral sense as is possessed by a community — a measure which is indispensable for the adaptation of the individual to society”.

The authors of the Indian Penal Code stated that:

“… We cannot admit that a Penal Code is by any means to be considered as a body of ethics, that the legislature ought to punish acts merely because those acts are immoral, or that, because an act is not punished at all, it follows that the legislature considers that act as innocent. Many things which are not punishable are morally worse than many things which are punishable. The man who treats a generous benefactor with gross ingratitude and insolence deserves more severe reprehension than the man who aims a blow in passion, or breaks a window in a frolic;

yet we have punishment for assault and mischief, and none for ingratitude. The rich man who refuses a mouthful of rice to save a fellow creature from death may be a far worse man than the starving wretch who snatches and devours the rice; yet we punish the latter for theft, and we do not punish the former for hard-heartedness.”

In T.K. Gopal alias Gopi v. State of Karnataka[7], deliberating on the definition of crime, the Court ruled that crime can be defined as an act that subjects the doer to legal punishment. It may also be defined as commission of an act specifically forbidden by law; it may be an offence against morality or social order”.

In Kartar Singh v. State of Punjab[8], this Court observed that: –

“446. What is a crime in a given society at a particular time has a wide connotation as the concept of crime keeps on changing with change in political, economic and social set-up of the country? Various legislations dealing with economic offences or offences dealing with violation of industrial activity or breach of taxing provision are ample proof of it. The Constitution-makers foresaw the eventuality, therefore they conferred such powers both on Central and State Legislatures to make laws in this regard. Such right includes power to define a crime and provide for its punishment.

Use of the expression, “including all matters included in the Indian Penal Code at the commencement of the Constitution” is unequivocal indication of comprehensive nature of this entry. It further empowers the legislature to make laws not only in respect of matters covered by the Indian Penal Code but any other matter which could reasonably and justifiably be considered to be criminal in nature.”

In Harpreet Kaur (Mrs) v. State of Maharashtra and another[9], the Court, though in a different context, opined that crime is a revolt against the whole society and an attack on the civilisation of the day. In their essential quality, the activities which affect ‘law and order’ and those which disturb ‘public order’ may not be different but in their potentiality and effect upon even tempo of the society and public tranquillity there is a vast difference.

In State of Karnataka v. Appa Balu Ingale and others[10] it has been observed that criminal law primarily concerns with social protection, prescribes rules of behavior to be observed by all persons and punishes them for deviance, transgression or omission.

[1] Stephen’s : New Commentaries on the Laws of England, Ed 17, Vol.4, Chap I, p.1-2.

[2] Blackstone’s : Commentaries on the Laws of England; Edited by Wayne Morrison, Vol. 4, p.5

[3] (2008) 9 SCC 475

[4] (2010) 4 SCC 653

[5] (2008) 2 SCC 305

[6] (2004) 2 SCC 9

[7] (2000) 6 SCC 168

[8] 1961 AIR 1787

[9] 1992 AIR 979

[10] AIR 1993 SC 1126